North Korea confirms 21 new deaths as it battles COVID-19

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea reported 21 new deaths Saturday and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country scrambles to slow the spread of COVID-19 among its unvaccinated population.

The new deaths and cases, which date from Friday, brought the total to 27 fatalities and 524,440 illnesses amid a rapidly spreading fever since late April. North Korea said 243,630 people had recovered and 280,810 remained in quarantine. State media did not specify how many fever cases and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.

The country on Thursday imposed what it described as maximum preventive measures after confirming its first cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. He previously held for more than two years a widely questioned claim of a perfect record preventing the virus which has spread to almost every place in the world.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo on Saturday described the outbreak as a historic “great upheaval” and called for unity between government and people to stabilize the outbreak as quickly as possible.

At the meeting, officials mainly discussed ways to quickly distribute medical supplies that the country released from its emergency reserves, Pyongyang’s official Korea Central News Agency said. In a report presented to the Politburo, the Northern Epidemic Emergencies Office blamed most of the deaths on “mistakes like excessive drug use, without scientific medical treatment.”

Kim, who said he is donating some of his private medicine to help the anti-virus campaign, expressed optimism about the country’s ability to bring the outbreak under control, saying most transmissions are occurring within communities isolated from each other and not spreading from region to region.

He called on officials to learn from other countries’ successful pandemic responses and singled out an example in China, the North’s key ally.

China, however, has come under pressure to change its so-called “zero-COVID” strategy that has crippled major cities as it strives to slow the rapidly evolving omicron variant.

Since Thursday, North Korea has imposed measures aimed at restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and counties, but descriptions of the measures by state media say people are not confined to their homes.

Experts say a failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea, given the country’s poor healthcare system and the fact that its 26 million people are largely not vaccinated.

Tests of virus samples taken from an unknown number of people with fever in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, on Sunday confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant, state media said. The country has so far officially confirmed that one death was linked to omicron infection.

Lacking vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other major health tools to fight the virus, North Korea’s response to the pandemic will mainly consist of isolating people with symptoms in shelters. designated, according to experts.

North Korea does not have the technological and other resources to impose extreme shutdowns like China, which has closed entire cities and confined residents to their homes, nor could it afford to do so at the risk of triggering a shock. further on a fragile economy, said Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

Although he called for stricter preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kim also stressed that the country’s economic goals must be met, which likely means that huge groups will continue to gather on the streets. agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping the virus out for 2½ years has been widely questioned. But its extremely strict border closures, large-scale quarantines and propaganda that emphasized virus checks as a matter of “national existence” may have averted a huge outbreak so far.

Experts are mixed about whether the North’s announcement of the outbreak communicates a willingness to receive outside help.

The country had avoided millions of doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly due to concerns about international monitoring requirements attached to such injections.

North Korea has a higher tolerance for civilian suffering than most other countries and some experts say the country may be willing to accept a certain level of death to gain immunity through infection, rather than receiving vaccines and other outside help.

South Korea’s new conservative government under President Yoon Suk Yeol, which took office on Tuesday, has offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea, but officials in Seoul have said the Nord had so far made no request for assistance. Relations between the rival Koreas have soured since 2019 following a derailment of nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

However, Kim’s call for his officials to learn from China’s experience indicates the North may soon ask China for COVID-19-related drugs and testing equipment, the analyst said. Cheong Seong-Chang from the Sejong Institute in South Korea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday that Beijing was ready to offer help to North Korea, but said he had no information on any such request.

North Korea’s viral spread could have been accelerated after around tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers gathered for a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, where Kim took center stage and presented the most powerful missiles of its military nuclear program.

After maintaining one of the world’s strictest border closures for two years to protect its poor healthcare system, North Korea reopened rail freight traffic with China in January, ostensibly to ease pressure on its economy. China confirmed the road closure last month as it battles COVID-19 outbreaks in border areas.

Hours after the North acknowledged its first COVID-19 infections on Thursday, South Korea’s military detected the North was testing three ballistic missiles in what appeared to be a defiant show of force.

Kim has ramped up its weapons demonstrations in 2022, including the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five years. Experts say Kim’s tightrope approach aims to force Washington to accept the idea of ​​the North as a nuclear power and negotiate the removal of crippling US-led sanctions and other concessions from from a stronger position.

South Korean and US officials have also said the North may be preparing to carry out its first nuclear test since 2017, which they say could take place as early as this month.

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